Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Down Hill Soap Box Racing in PA and MD

A friend introduced me to the world of the M.I.S.F.I.T.S. before the sun even thought about rising over the quaint Poconos town that would be their unwilling race track for the day. Three run-ins with the police and four heats later, we were stopping at a small pub for an early Sunday brunch to celebrate the East Coast Illegal Soap Box Cup. All in all, it's a pretty nice way to look back on Fall of 2009.

OK, let me explain something about illegal down-hill soap box racing: it's daft. People spend their Saturdays building karts so they can spend their Sundays crashing karts, and from what I can tell the crashes happen pretty often. Of course, the fact that my friends find it fascinating and addicting has lured me out to try it on more than on occasion. So far I've been scolded by the police 3-4 times and actually raced 0 times. I plan to rectify that some day, but for now let me just give some highlights of the sport.

Crashes, gashes, and top-speeds around 50 MPH. Let's not forget the hair-pin turns, wet pavement, and frigid, early mornings. Yeah, that about sums it up. And even with all of that insanity, it's still one of the most enjoyable ways I can think of to spend a Sunday morning. I was home by 1 PM, so I can't really even complain that I missed out on part of my day. After all, doesn't a brush with near-death and assorted Poconos police departments sound better than sleeping in? These guys (and girls, if you want to get technical) are hardcore racers, gear-heads, and/or adrenaline junkies, but they will welcome new faces with open arms. So, if you find yourself seeking thrills on a sleepy weekend, look them up. It might be a race-day!

As always, apologies for how over-due this post is.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Corpus Christi & Huanchaco by Brice & Ray

Ray told me to write about surfing and maybe Huanchaco. We'll see. I'll stick with the cool stuff.

We got a beachfront room. There's not much that I'll spend the extra $ for, but beachfront bedrooms are amazing. We got in on a taxi after a night bus, needing a shower and a lazy morning. We walked the two blocks from the Plaza de Armas, and set off towards the less-built up section of beachfront. Pretty soon we found a nice hotel, with a nice restaurant on the patio, and a it seemed to be pretty empty, which suggest to us: They are desperate! Cheap Rooms.

The cleaner boy (the only one in) tells us s/50 = 17 bucks a night. More than we had been paying, but totally worth it. Fantastic view of the beach, huge window over an entire wall, private porch. I was half way through my shower when he came back to tell us it was $50. And we're cheap college students, so screw that. We found a place a block or two down for cheaper. It had a smaller window, and our porch wasn't technically private.... but it came with a kitty, and the porch was private whenever we had our private breakfast served to us. It was 3 floors, and had a roof that I could go up to at 4am when I couldn't sleep, and I could peruse the waves, and the walls of the surrounding buildings, and drink the last inch of another poor wine choice (I blame Ray [I'll actually take responsibility for that; I thought it was a dry rose and it turned out to be liquid sugar with a funky after taste. Damn Peruvian wines.]). It even had a shower to store surfboards in!

Why would I need that? Well because I rented a surfboard of course! They had beautiful 6' swells traveling at least 300 yards down the beach. I got [rented, $17 for two days] my suit and my board and went for it! And got destroyed. My arms are not like Huanchaco surfer bum arms. At a certain point I stopped making progress. So I went back in and went down to the easy beach, which Ray will now tell you about: knickknacks, boats, turtle rocks, how cool all the tourists thought i was, and they all wanted pictures w/ me.

Well, first of all, I had juice boxes, towels, sun block, and crackers waiting for Brice whenever he came out of the water. He called me annoying, but - really - I think he was glad for something other than salty water to drink. Then I taught him how to paddle his surf board properly, because I spent my day watching the other surfers and listening in on the beginners' lessons being taught just a little ways down the beach. He did much better after that!

The "easy beach" was really a cove in the middle of town, so there were lots of street vendors and restaurants all around us. I had one man approach me to buy a "totoritas," but he had a Quechuan accent and I thought he said "tortugitas," which means baby turtle. Well, naturally I wanted to see the baby turtles! Man was I bummed when he tried to sell me a banana-sized reed boat. Anyways, Mrs. Farrell gave us a fine point sharpie at the beginnig of our trip, so I wandered in the surf until I found two green rocks and used the marker to decorate them like baby turtles (a girl for me and a boy for Brice)! Now we actually do have tortugitas from Peru.

These waves [further down the beach] were much more survivable*. I caught a few, chatted with people from Europe/ the states/ Australia, even caught a couple in the perfect area just pre-cresting, but the break zone moved all over the place, and they tended to die out pretty quick. Either way, it was lots of fun, wetsuits are amazing [isn't he cute?], and I learned to a shorter board than my first time surfing (meaning harder and more maneuverable).

Now ray will share things that i doubtlessly forgot, like how the road on the other side of town just died out in sand, or how they forgot? about us in the top level of a restaurant for like two hours while we watched surfers.

They didn't forget about us so much as take a really long time getting our food. Looking back on Peru, it's been nearly a year since we started that crazy road trip. I've spent way too long getting this blog together, so this is going to be my last post (sans photos until I get a chance to pull some files from my online back-up). Corpus Christi was amazing. We had a brilliant time singing and enjoying the mass, then we stole flowers from the public decorations with a bunch of Peruvian kids and wandered back to our hotel. The remainder of our days were spent sunbathing, surfing, and killing time until we caught a bus back to Lima.

The highlight of Lima this time around was the souvenir shopping. Brice bought me a present! It's SOOOO cute, and I love my guinea baby. I'm sure all of you who stopped in to see me over the past year were forced to ooh and ahh over it with me for several minutes. We returned to the US exhausted but enriched, and I've had no shortage of interesting stories to tell.

Here's the short version of our trip:

View South American Explorations in a larger map

* Survivable for me. We did watch a girl drift further and further in trying to catch smaller and smaller waves. When a big wave got to her... well, I wanted to scream, but it was too late. So I just said "RAY LOOK AT THIS" and pointed. She finally caught a wave! About 3' from the beach.... and got slammed down onto the hard sand. Luckily she came back up, laughing, so I didn't have to put into practice all those hours watching Baywatch reruns.


If you go to Cajamarca, chances are you'll at least have a connecting bus through Trujillo. The people in Trujillo will tell you that it's only a further 4-6 hours to Cajamarca, but that will be a lie. Plan to spend at least 9 hours on that bus. On the bright side, it's a beautiful ride. It goes right through the lower ranges of Las Cordilleras Blancas, an area famed for its glacial snow caps and hot springs, and we saw some really pretty landscapes along the way. Cajamarca is best known for its festivals - especially Carnivale / Mardi Gras - and for its beautiful colonial streets. A lot of the Peruvians told us it's "like Cuzco was 20 years ago," and I think they're probably right. Unfortunately, it was a festival week (Corpus Christi started two days after we left) and that meant most of the tourist destinations were closed.

We spent our first night exploring the streets around the Plaza and watching fireworks in the church courtyard. We missed most of the festivities because we were eating dinner, but we caught the very end of it and had a decent time in the aftermath. When these people celebrate, they really celebrate! All of the streets had well-maintained cobblestones, and there weren't really any ugly buildings in the town center, so we just sort of wandered around until bedtime.

The next morning, we opted not to go on a 9 AM excursion to Cumbe Mayo, the nearby ruins we wanted to visit, and decided to take a later tour. We wandered through the town and found out that most of the good sites were still closed. We did have a chance to see the "Ransom Room," though, where the Incan Empire officially died. The Emperor Atahualpa was held captive by Pizzaro, and to buy his freedom he offered to fill his prison cell with gold. The Spaniards took him up on that offer, but executed him anyways. But back to the story: as it turns out, there are no later tours to Cumbe Mayo. We had to hire a car to drive us out there, which was a little more expensive, but not incredibly so. The cab kept overheating as we climbed the mountain, so we stopped to chat with a family of Quechuan farmers who gave us some water for the radiator and let us park our car to cool it down. They were grating the roads, so that was another fun obstacle, but we made it!

A man gave us a tour of the museum and offered to sell us a tour of the site, but we decided to do the self-guided thing. It was a very, very, very good decision. The sudden change in elevation started kicking my butt as soon as we started our hike, but I hobbled along as Brice did his usual billy goat routine. We explored a deep tunnel ascending through the rock, checked out the petroglyphs. They're ancient, Pre-Incan, and largely undeciphered, but it was pretty neat to just walk up and touch them. Most of them look like a series of scribbles, but there were some geometric patterns in a few of them. We kept looking for them as we hiked, spotting a few here and there, and then we found ourselves standing at the top of the valley looking down.

At that instant, we knew we had left Peru and entered Middle Earth. The valley at Cumbe Mayo must harbor goblins, Orcs, and Gollum. Maybe even some trolls. Any other explanations simply cannot account for the epic, fantastical setting left more or less unlauded in the normal tourist literature. I fully expected a giant Eagle to swoop down and pick me up, or a hobbit to come over and ask for elevensies. Brice explored all of the small caves and crevices, goblin hunting, while I wandered amongst the monoliths and let the walls of the canyon close in around me. I've only been this overwhelmed by natural beauty at Land's End or the Cliffs of Moher; Cumbe Mayo is absolutely stunning.

Towards the bottom of the valley, we saw some of the oldest aqueducts in South America and a rounded rock - shaped like a cheese wheel - where the Incas used to make human sacrifices. OK, so we don't KNOW that they made sacrifices, but that sounds cool so it's what they tell all the tourists. I listened in on a Spanish tour guide while Brice climbed around the near by rocks. I also petted another baby llama and gave money to the begging Quechuan women who were holding it, but shh! Don't tell Brice. We walked back up the valley along the aqueduct, pressing ourselves into the rock face at points. When we made it back to the car, I was winded, sore, and exhilarated all at once. Cumbe Mayo is totally worth the 9 hour bus ride from Trujillo.

We spent a second evening in Cajamarca, since our bus didn't leave until late that night, and it was a really good time. The churches with catacombs were still closed, but there were lots of bands playing in the streets to prepare for Corpus Christi. After eating the best pizza of my life (ham, chicken, pineapple, onion, and pepper with good sauce and fresh cheese on a thin crust cooked in a wood oven), we went to a peace rally for the riots in Bagua, a small jungle town not all that far from Cajamarca.

At around the same time we were walking to Cusco, Bagua underwent a similar agricultural riot. The government leased 70% of the indigenous land in the Bagua department (state) to oil drilling and coal mining, basically leaving the Quechuan farmers of the area high and dry. They made a road block that locked down the the department for nearly 60 days, so the police intervened. As far as official reports go, it looks like 50 people (from both sides) were killed and about 200 were injured.

Peru's government kept the violence under wraps for a while, but we started seeing headlines about the massacre by the time we made it to Trujillo. The activists in Cajamarca brought large pipe horns that let out a mournful bellow, candles, and a loudspeaker to the area outside of the Cathedral. They prayed for peace in Bagua, and led the whole plaza in chants. We didn't really join in, but we wandered through the people and chatted amongst ourselves. I bought a hot rice pudding from a street vendor, but there was a really bitter jam on it and I couldn't eat it. That was probably my worst encounter with street food in Peru.

After the rally, a concert band set up on the other end of the plaza, so enjoyed the free concert and watched some kids play on the grass. Then, all together too soon, it was time to go back to Trujillo. We got back on the bus, curled up in our seats, and slept until we smelled the ocean again.

Everyone read Brice's comment. He made some really good observations! Here are some photos to go with them:

1) El castillo rock formation.

2) The pizza oven.